The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

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A young woman in the depths of the Russian forest faces temporal and supernatural challenges, especially with respect to household spirits that few others can see.

The cover of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale caught my eye at NetGalley. A closer look suggested it wasn’t my kind of book, but then I got several e-mails from the publisher suggesting I try it. They compared Arden to Robin Hobb, and Hobb herself blurbed the book, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Guess which of us was right.

The book draws on traditional Russian fairy tales, and that’s its downfall in a nutshell. The stiff, mannered voice that seems quaint in a fairy tale is wearing at book length. Constructions like “in arguing, pleading, and speculation, the evening passed” lose their charm fairly quickly. By a few chapters in, I was already tired of the voice, and of the thin characters that might have worked in a short story.

Arden adds color by including occasional Russian phrases. Happily, I speak Russian, but even so I found the additions more irritating than interesting. As Arden herself admits in an afterword, she’s inconsistent in her transcription and usage. I think most readers won’t benefit from the distinctions between, e.g., devachka and devushka, and I simply didn’t see a logic to the language.

The setting, deep in the Russian woods does feel credible, though the characters don’t work as well. The story takes places in a prior century, but that doesn’t entirely excuse some of the attitudes. “Long-limbed for a girl”, “he kissed her until defiance turned to passion”, etc. There’s not a lot of this, but I found it unappealing, especially because the characters are so shallow. The story’s turns to politics in the second section doesn’t help, though it does recover somewhat at the end, with a return to relationships and magic.

I still like the cover, and it seems clear that Arden is a capable writer, but for this story, she’s equally clearly chosen the wrong approach. I found the voice stiff, and the story relatively tedious. Even for Russophiles, I can’t recommend it.

Received free copy of book in exchange for honest review.

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